A tradition in the Australian Army is that enlisted soldiers eat first at mealtime, then non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers eat last.
You’d think it would be the other way around. With rank and status comes privileges and perks. Business executives, Hollywood stars and Olympic athletes get big salaries and public praise for their work. Why don’t military leaders do something as simple as eating first at mealtime?
It’s because the Australian Army, and many other armies, uphold the idea that a leader puts the team first. A leader who eats last puts a higher priority on their soldiers than on their own wellbeing.
Leaders putting the team first indicates a resilient, effective organisation. It’s the core of Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last. Putting the team first makes team members feel safe and respected. They’ll also come together in the face of danger, a fundamental need for an armed force.
Sinek goes further and examines the neurochemistry of an effective team, specifically hormones. The four hormones relevant to teams are cortisol, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.
This stress hormone is produced in the adrenal glands and released when we are threatened. Cortisol alerts us to danger, makes us feel uncomfortable and forces us to find the source of the threat.
If there is no threat, the cortisol leaves our system and the stress fades. If there is a threat, we get an adrenaline rush and the fight-or-flight decision occurs. In a military scenario, training will also activate, and a well-drilled soldier will follow training over the body’s natural response.
Cortisol’s strain on the body means it can only be in our system for a short period. Lengthy exposure to cortisol reduces appetite, kills sex drive, raises blood pressure and makes high-level thinking difficult.
Dopamine is the reward hormone. It feels good and is released when we complete a task linked to our survival, the most obvious being eating food, finding shelter and reproducing.
The amount of dopamine released is proportional to the size of the task – a small achievement earns a small release, while a big achievement earns a big release. This makes dopamine addictive.
Dopamine is a double-edged sword and humans get addicted to dopamine hits from artificial sources, such as alcohol and narcotics. We also get it from activities that don’t involve substances entering the body – it’s how we become addicted to smartphones.
This versatile hormone makes us confident, gives us a sense of pride and raises our self-esteem. It also helps us regulate sleep, appetite and moods.
A lack of serotonin makes emotional self-regulation hard, with extreme mood swings being a symptom for depression. This makes it difficult to judge if our friends and family might be depressed, as they may only make themselves socially available during emotionally high periods.
While there are many causes of depression, common medical treatments such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) build up serotonin in the brain. When I went through depression, I was on this type of medication.
Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and is the hormone of relationships, whether it be partners, family, friends or another close bond, such as the bonds between soldiers on deployment. It is necessary for us to trust each another and feel empathy.
Oxytocin is the social hormone that makes it possible for humans to work in groups. It’s longer lasting and less addictive than dopamine.
While dopamine may dominate during a whirlwind romance with someone you just met, after a while it will be replaced with the more stable oxytocin.
Selfish Hormones, Selfish Teams
Dopamine and cortisol are necessary for individual survival. Without dopamine and cortisol, we’d have no drive to complete survival tasks and no early warning system. Sinek calls these the 'selfish hormones'.
Sinek describes how teams consumed with selfish hormones are less effective. Team members chase short-term rewards instead of pursuing larger goals and feel no connection to their teammates.
Cooperation breaks down, with sabotage and betrayal becoming acceptable. Since there’s no cooperation, cortisol rises, creating an atmosphere of constant anxiety. It’s the worst possible environment for a military team – where trust and cooperation are essential to achieve the objective.
Selfless Hormones, Selfless Teams
By contrast, Sinek refers to serotonin and oxytocin as the 'selfless hormones'. They create interpersonal bonds and promote cooperation. Team members help each other to the point where they willingly sacrifice their own comfort and safety for the team.
We see examples of this in soldiers who expose themselves to enemy fire while dragging an injured teammate to safety. This requires strong personal bonds within the team as well as great personal courage by the individual.
Selflessness is so important that it’s part of the Army’s core values – namely service, which is defined as, 'the selflessness of character to place the security and interests of our nation and its people ahead of my own.'
Tightly bonded teams pull together to form Sinek’s 'circle of safety.' Those in the circle are confident that there is no backstabbing and no lying. They know the threat is outside – the enemy, the weather and the terrain – and they face it together.
The circle expands from the section level all the way out to the wider Army. If I see someone I’ve never met wearing the Rising Sun, then I know they are part of my circle of safety regardless of rank, unit or corps.
What does this mean for you?
If you are a team member, think about how you feel at work and how you feel towards your team. This will tell you what kind of team you have. Like all things, there is a spectrum, and there will be some team members that don’t reflect the whole.
If you are a team leader (or want to be one) think about how your team functions. Is there sniping and politicking? Do people try and one-up each other? Are people stressed and anxious? It may be time to reflect on what you can do to change the environment and create a circle of safety. After all, leaders set the tone of the team.
Armies are large organisations and it’s difficult to make change across a group of thousands. But by putting these words into action, we uphold the contract that applies to us all – being physically and mentally tough; being compassionate and courageous; and a commitment to learning and working for the team.